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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Updated: November 19, 11:40 AM ET
First, do no harm

By Don Ohlmeyer
ESPN Ombudsman

First, do no harm.

In Latin it is known as primum non nocere, a prime directive for medical professionals dating back to 400 B.C. While not a matter of life and death, the same Hippocratic dictum that guided physicians in ancient Greece could be applicable to those who schedule, program and broadcast live sporting events in 2009. When it comes to serving fans, the best advice is, first, do no harm.

Errors in the booth by announcers, scheduling conundrums, talking over the national anthem and other perceived "political" intrusions are areas that, based on the ombudsman's mailbag, seem to drive a good chunk of ESPN's audience up the wall. So let's take a closer look.

Mistakes in the booth

Among the most frequent complaints sent to the mailbag are those concerning announcers who "think they're more important than the game" or "babble on and on about things that have nothing to do with what's happening on the field" or "think the audience tunes in just to hear what they have to say."

Some viewers believe announcers gain their reputations by the brilliant insights they provide or the inventive way they can construct a sentence on the fly. But those perceived as solid broadcasters are skilled at avoiding the irritating mistakes that annoy viewers. Some of which are sins of omission, some of commission. Transgress too often and the audience begins to question both credibility and professionalism. Even a partial list is long, but in no particular order it might include:

• Mistakes of fact: Identifying players incorrectly, mistaken down and distance, incorrect statistical information, etc.

• Techno-babble: Throwing around "inside" terms that the announcer incorrectly assumes the audience is familiar with.

• Not knowing the rules: A cardinal sin compounded when the announcer subsequently disagrees with the officials' explanations.

• Guessing: Happens with penalties before they're announced by referees. The announcer runs the risk of being wrong; just wait a few seconds and you'll always be right.

• Not following the monitor: The audience only sees the images on the screen. If the announcers are regularly talking about things out of view, it frustrates the fan.

• Second-guessing coaches (constantly): Repeatedly preferring an announcer's play choice over the one called on the field.

• Facts in a vacuum: Telling the audience, for example, that a player is third in a statistical category but neglecting to mention those who are first and second.

• Superstar bias: Focusing on the superstars whether they are the main storylines or not.

• Opinionitis: Filling the telecast with more opinion and conjecture than factual information and cogent criticism.

Announcers and their production teams constantly make choices -- decisions such as which players to highlight, which graphics are germane, which storylines to expand upon or which interviews or features to use. Great choices make great telecasts. Bad choices can leave the announcers hung out to dry.

A recent example of the latter occurred during ESPN's broadcast of the Sept. 26 matchup between Purdue and Notre Dame -- two decisions and their execution tarnished what was otherwise a first-rate telecast of an exciting game with a storybook finish and drama that wouldn't quit.

The ESPN announcers working the game -- Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge, in their first season together -- are already considered by many as one of ESPN's top college football teams. They possess good voices, are strong on the nuts and bolts, and mesh well. They bring a sense of story and context to the call. But they faced challenges that interrupted the flow of the game.

Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen had an ineffective first quarter and was later pulled from the game because of a toe injury. On his first drive, backup QB Dayne Crist led the Irish to a touchdown. Leading 10-7 with 8 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Notre Dame got the ball back and was rolling toward another score . . . and then the broadcast's momentum ground to a halt.

The production team chose that moment to bring Joe Tiller, the winningest coach in Purdue history, into the booth for an interview. He had led the Boilermakers to 10 bowls in 12 years and this was his first visit back on campus since retiring after the 2008 season. Talking with a former coach is totally appropriate over the course of a 3 -hour telecast, but not during a key drive in a tight game when the viewer is glued to the excitement on the field.

The Tiller interview rambled on over 12 plays, including another Notre Dame score, extra point and the ensuing kickoff. Replays were skipped while the trio was put on camera and an update from the studio was thrown in for good measure. A seven-play, 62-yard drive played second fiddle to such scintillating queries as "How was the trip coming down here?" and "How's retirement?" and "Is Drew Brees on your fantasy team?" It concluded with "Is my room still ready when I want to come fishing?" During a key stretch on the field, the football game became an afterthought -- an interruption -- to the "fun and frivolity" in the booth.

The best telecasts are those in which announcers are in sync with the flow of the event -- they are almost unnoticed as they provide key information and insights viewers may miss without a knowledgeable "tour guide." The best announcers have a conversation with the audience, rather than give a presentation. When they interrupt the flow of a good game they're doing neither, and the audience's reaction is negative.

When viewers get irritated they start listening with hypercritical ears. They begin to question the announcers' focus, subject them to added scrutiny, and raise issues concerning their competence. They offer cynical criticism framed as rhetorical questions, such as "If they weren't so tied up with the interview, maybe they'd have time to explain why ND could run with Crist but not with the more versatile Clausen." In effect, the viewers are asking themselves the questions they wish the announcers were addressing.

The second unfortunate choice came later in the game: the placement and handling of the often-used "Todd's Taste of the Town" segment. The pre-produced feature about a local eatery and the attendant on- and off-camera commentary stretched over six plays of a 17-14 game while Purdue was surging and Notre Dame was struggling.

The color and pageantry of college football is a key element of the sport's charm and popularity. Barbequing tailgaters, cheerleaders, bands, diehard fans in goofy costumes and clever signs are as much a part of the collegiate experience as the game itself. Some "color shots" enhance the live coverage, others are best used going into and out of commercials.

But forcing pre-produced non-football elements between plays in an exciting game is distracting and a disservice to the audience -- do them at halftime, during an extra timeout or when the game is no longer in doubt. If it doesn't fit because the actual game is more exciting or there are important developments, then it doesn't fit and needs to be dropped. Leave the flow of a good game alone. The viewers will appreciate it, and it's good for the broadcasters' reputations.

On the last play of the game, Blackledge correctly anticipated the call, predicting that Notre Dame's eventual game-winning, fourth-down TD pass would go to Kyle Rudolph. Now that's the kind of announcing the audience really relishes.

Scheduling conundrums

Scheduling is always a nightmare for programming executives. Patching a schedule together is like completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. You start with a spreadsheet of boxes that account for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. ESPN does this for each of its eight networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360.com and ESPN on ABC). That means programmers are responsible for identifying and scheduling more than 70,000 hours of sports television, including 30,000 hours of live programming. The rest includes news-and-information shows, recorded events (many on same-day delays), specials and repeats. This can be a mind-boggling undertaking. ESPN's jigsaw puzzle has increased complexity because, while the start times of the live events are known, the end times fluctuate wildly.

The schedule is constructed with a number of goals in mind. One is to maximize ratings -- high ratings indicate that the programmer is serving the interests of a large number of ESPN viewers, which is good both for the fan and the business. The higher the ratings, the higher the potential advertising revenue. Another goal is a well-rounded schedule that provides variety and reaches viewers that aren't necessarily interested in the most popular sports. Providing coverage of bowling, soccer, poker, fishing, sailing and lacrosse, among others, allows ESPN to reach viewers who otherwise might not watch its channels. ESPN does so to expand its reach, making the networks more valuable to more people, resulting in increased viewership, satisfaction and loyalty.

For a scheduler, live events are both a blessing and a curse -- good scheduling breaks down when the audience tunes in to see a program and it's not there. A promise has been broken, and the viewers resent it. The viewers don't care that a football game went into overtime or a baseball game lasted extra innings. They've been instructed to show up at a certain time, and they did (or set their DVRs as advertised, and ended up with a partial program). Not only are they angry, they're hurt. They feel inconvenienced and unappreciated. This translates into a sense that ESPN doesn't care about them or the sport or team they passionately follow.

On three consecutive weekends this fall, for example, college football games ran long, preempting a portion of a 2-hour coverage window devoted to drag-racing programming. The math is simple: Football games this fall have averaged three hours, 21 minutes, but ESPN allocated only three-hour blocks (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) for them on its schedule. Why? If ESPN had left 3 1/2-hour blocks for football, a studio show would have been required to bridge from the end of the game to the start of the NHRA qualifying races. And even if ESPN had scheduled a post-event studio show, a given game could go into overtime and run four hours. That's part of the conundrum.

But there's more to it. Programmers know that from 10 p.m. on, they start to lose audience - many viewers start to go to bed at that point, unless something grabs their attention. History informs that events hold an audience more readily than a studio show does. Experience dictates that drag racing will keep roughly 25 percent of a football game's two million viewers. Putting a studio show in the middle would demonstrably diminish the viewership. So showing drag racing directly following the football game gets more viewers to watch. That's good for promotion of the sport and it is good for those who've watched the game and stay tuned to the network. But what about those viewers who have no interest in football and came just for NHRA?

ESPN needs special outreach to communicate the fact that programs following live events can't always start as scheduled. That outreach could include:

• Better utilization of the Bottom Line (the information "crawl" at the bottom of the screen) to inform viewers the scheduled program will start "immediately following . . . "

• Have game announcers strongly re-enforce "immediately following . . . " as their live event begins to run over the allotted time.

• On the program-listing pages of ESPN.com, add "immediately following . . . " to the clock time.

• Convince satellite and cable providers to reflect the same type of notification via their on-screen listings.

• Ask the affected sports to use their official Web sites to convey the same concept of a flexible start time following live events.

• Include taped promotional messages in the affected programs themselves to alert viewers to possible flexible starting times in future telecasts.

This may sound like a considerable effort for shows that don't attract a large audience, but in the big picture viewer satisfaction with the channel is as important as high ratings. Perhaps the scheduling conundrum will never be solved without the technological nirvana of comprehensive video-on-demand, but until then, every effort should be made to mitigate the confusion among viewers. It's critical to remember that audience loyalty comes one viewer at a time.

Political intrusions

When ESPN programs venture into areas that have perceived political overtones, the network risks complaints both from the audience and media critics. Two recent events went relatively unnoticed by the media, but drew a lot of attention from viewers.

National anthem

ESPN's "College Football GameDay" kicks off festivities on Saturdays in the fall. It's a well produced examination of the day's key matchups, with informative features and pertinent interviews. The knowledgeable, amiable hosts dispense facts, insights and opinions live from campuses around the country, while capturing the excitement and enthusiasm that surrounds the games.

The Oct. 17 telecast preceded the Texas-Oklahoma game and was hosted from a set on the sidelines in the Cotton Bowl. While a celebrity guest provided his predictions for the day's game, the band -- no more than 50 feet away -- was playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." No one on the set seemed fazed by this. But the viewers who wrote expressed anger and outrage over what they perceived to be blatant disrespect for the national anthem and a profoundly unpatriotic act. Evidently, there was no embarrassment or contrition on ESPN's part, as that night's "SportsCenter" replayed a clip from the interview with the anthem as its musical accompaniment.

There was a time when there was universal respect, even a reverence, for "The Star-Spangled Banner." It has long been standard operating procedure for sports telecasts to either present the anthem in its entirety, or take great care to show a commercial or some other prerecorded material instead. In another era it was ingrained into production teams that, when trapped by a surprise playing of the anthem, all would respectfully rise to their feet and fall silent, even during rehearsal.

It is worth noting that U.S. Code (Title 36/Chapter3/Section 301) dictates that, during a rendition of the national anthem, "all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart."

Disregard for "The Star-Spangled Banner" is becoming more common. It has happened previously on ESPN and on other networks. Viewers write about their perception of ESPN and announcer "arrogance." Perhaps GameDay's reaction to the anthem exemplifies some of the behavior that engenders that feeling. The implicit message the audience hears is a not-so-subtle "the importance of what we're saying right now far outweighs your quaint patriotic custom."

In speaking with ESPN representatives, we learned that the anthem was played 2 minutes earlier than scheduled, catching the production team and announcers off guard. Their reaction was inaction. The "SportsCenter" clip can only be explained as a lack of attention to detail. Said Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor of studio production: "None of this should have happened. There are no excuses. It's embarrassing, and we apologize. Now we have to make sure it never happens again."

Hispanic Heritage celebration

On Oct. 12, ESPN and the NFL jointly sponsored a National Hispanic Heritage celebration during the "Monday Night Football" game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. It was a smart promotion intended to be positive affirmation of multi-cultural sensitivity and outreach -- a warm embrace to a growing ethnic group. The Miami market made for a perfect tie-in because of its heavily Hispanic population, and the celebration encompassed far more than just the game.

Reaching out to any segment of society is socially responsible as well as good business, but if the comments to ESPN's multiple mailbags were in any way a reflection of the audience's general reaction, it was a negative for the network.

Some viewers wrote of the apparent irony of having Hispanic Heritage as the focus of the telecast on Columbus Day. Others wanted to know if they should expect celebrations of French, German, Irish or Italian heritage on MNF. Some saw President Obama's message as a manufactured political intrusion. The most common complaints involved the use of the Spanish language instead of English in the traditional MNF opening, a commercial with Mark Sanchez and the first penalty call of the game by referee Alberto Riveron.

These can be dismissed as the rantings of "lunatic xenophobes" or can be viewed as a cautionary tale. As sports organizers and networks become more and more involved in social issues -- no matter how well intentioned or worthwhile -- ESPN should continually ask itself a key question: "How will this impact our viewers' expectations?"

When people choose to watch a sporting event on ESPN, they come to be transported via the competition and enjoy the cathartic experience it can provide. Watching a game can be an entertaining escape, a safe haven, a refuge from the problems of daily life. Even though sport has its own dark underbelly, people are drawn to it by what they perceive as the purity of the contest -- you win or lose based on talent, hard work and effort, not because of politics. They expect the telecast to be about the event and only the event, unless otherwise advertised.

When they choose to come to ESPN for sports news they expect to see the key highlights of the day with informative interviews and analysis based on content that's well researched and factual. If they choose one of ESPN's opinion shows, they know they've chosen a different animal. Viewers revel in the heated and often hyperbolic debate, and they recognize that "political" issues can find a home here (though like news, they expect the facts to be accurate; while balance isn't the norm in sports opinion-fests, viewers do expect some form of fairness).

Over the course of 30 years, ESPN has established a template for viewers with the way it presents programs, and those expectations form a part of ESPN's compact with its audience. The common subtext to the letters of those who complained about the Hispanic Heritage celebration was that the viewers weren't expecting what they saw when they came to MNF that night. They felt they came for a football game, became a captive audience and were force-fed something they didn't care for. Letters from viewers are anecdotal, not scientific, so if all the people who were upset communicated it by writing, then it's probably just the cost of doing business. But if they represent a substantial portion of the audience, there could be a real cost to doing this business.

ESPN has a corporate obligation to act in a socially responsible way, and its management takes that duty very seriously. However, integrating social relevance into live sporting events can have unintended consequences. It can give rise to conflicts when your business is televising sports in a highly polarized society in which one man's social gesture is another's political statement.

The core of ESPN's success depends on the goodwill of its audience. That audience holds myriad points of view, and viewers' true feelings are difficult -- if not impossible -- to gauge. Balancing corporate responsibility with expectations of viewers is one of the supreme high-wire acts.

In the end, all ESPN can do is weigh the scales and take what it believes to be the appropriate action. In doing so, it may be helpful to remember what Hippocrates said: "First, do no harm."

Until next time . . .